Sergio Mendes to some will forever be defined for his Latin pop sound that graced AM radio in the ‘60s and ‘70s, namely his band Brasil ’66; as well as some originals and several hit covers of The Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell and many others. But, if you stopped there, you’ve missed tons of great music from the keyboardist/producer/composer/vocalist who keeps moving forward. Released to coincide with a new documentary on his life by filmmaker John Scheinfeld (Chasing Trane, Who Is Harry Nilsson?). In the Key of Joy features not only big contemporary names like Common but emerging artists too, including Hermeto Pascoal, Joe Pizzulo, Cali y El Dandee, Buddy, Sugar Joans, João Donato, Sheléa and Mendes’ wife and longtime singer, Gracinha Leporace.
In the Key of Joy melds the classic Brazilian, jazz and pop sounds that have long characterized Mendes’ music with current inspirations that make the album sound timeless and as utterly contemporary as any. Mendes has long lived in Los Angeles and has absorbed much of the city’s current music scene as evidenced here. “This album is all about joy and celebration,” Mendes says. “I’m very curious, and I love to work with different people from different cultures, different countries, different generations and different styles.”
Note that we are only covering In the Key of Joy but there is a Deluxe Edition that includes the soundtrack to the film, a career-spanning overview that encompasses the greatest moments from Mendes’ musical life from the unforgettable Brasil ’66 classic “Mas Que Nada” to Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love,” which Mendes memorably performed on the 1968 Academy Awards telecast; collaborations with will.i.am and the dazzling, soulful “Never Gonna Let You Go.”
In the Key of Joy was recorded between Mendes’ native Brazil and his adopted home of Los Angeles. The first voice heard on the opening Brazilian pop of “Sabor Do Rio” is that of rapper Common signaling that the album is indeed fresh and wide-ranging enough to appeal to contemporary listeners. Like much of the album, the song was co-written by Mendes with producer and multi-instrumentalist Mika Mutti and woodwind player/arranger Scott Mayo. The pulsating dance tune “Bora Lá” pairs Brazilian samba star Rogê and Mendes’ lifelong muse, his wife, Gracinha Leporace.
The Colombian pop duo of brothers Cali y El Dandee step forward on the sultry “La Noche Entera,” co-written by the pair along with Mendes and the acclaimed Brazilian musician/producer Carlinhos Brown. The soaring vocals of The Voice alum Sugar Joans grace “Samba in Heaven.” She is a second-generation collaborator with Mendes, her father being Joe Pizzulo, who so memorably sang the lead on “Never Gonna Let You Go.” Pizzulo himself rejoins Mendes for “Love Came Between Us,” which evokes the silky sound of that classic hit.
Bossa pianist João Donato co-wrote and performs on the percolating “Muganga.” In the liner notes, Mendes refers to Donato as one of his “Three Magi,” along with Hermeto Pascoal and Guinga. The former contributes the party-like atmosphere of “This Is It (É Isso),” also performing an emphatic Portuguese rap. Guinga, meanwhile, wrote and plays guitar on the album’s mesmerizing, blissful final cut, “Tangara.” The upbeat title track features up-and-coming Compton rapper Buddy, who also recently worked with keyboardist Robert Glasper. Singer-songwriter Sheléa dances nimbly around the acoustic guitar lines of Chico Brown on “Catch the Wave” and takes an achingly yearning turn on the ballad “Times Goes By.” Mutti penned the delightfully cheery “Romance in Copacabana,” with its whistling melody and a spotlight for the bandleader’s nimble jazz piano skills.
Listening reveals Mendes’ joy in making the album which not only coincides with the documentary but is in keeping with the 60th anniversary of bossa nova music. He’s moved into lots of directions since as evidenced by the varied fare here. “I like to get out of my comfort zone and try things that I’ve never done before,” Mendes concludes. “I feel a great excitement walking into the studio with different people and discovering what happens. That’s what I do. I love the musical adventure that I’ve been on for more than 60 years.” So, for those of you who haven’t been acquainted with Sergio Mendes since the glory days of AM Radio, and for others that are in the know, this may prove both surprising, and yes, joyful.